In a gray, windowless room, with uncovered light bulbs beating down, Li and I waited for Agent Cooper to return.
“I hope he brings cheeseburgers,” said Li.
Our handcuffs were linked to the table through steel loops.
“They questioned me and Hollywood in a room like this,” I said.
Li didn’t reply.
I’d last seen Hollywood in a San Diego dive bar. I arrived just as the biggest dude in the place smashed a barstool over his blond head. As the whole establishment descended into bedlam, I dragged Hollywood out the door and a respectable distance down the street. In return I received a drunken wallop in the eye.
“This is why nobody likes you,” I said as I staggered away.
He wrapped himself around a telephone pole like it was the only stationary object on Earth.
“Hey, Tetris, you know what?” he said as his head lolled to the side.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Agent Cooper came through the door with an enormous paper bag cradled in his arms.
“Not quite cheeseburgers,” he said. “There’s a great Indian place around the corner. Gimme a sec, I’ll grab some plates.”
He placed the bag on the table and left. Li stretched against the handcuffs and managed to tug the food over. Rooting through, she laid each dish on the table. Despite myself, I was pleased. Indian food was my second-favorite cuisine. It dawned on me that Cooper probably knew that.
“They have us under surveillance all the time, you think?” I asked.
“Motherfucker even knew our orders,” said Li. “Chicken korma, vegetable pakoras, lamb biriyani. No mango lassi, though. Good thing Zip’s not here. He’d throw a fit.”
We munched on the pakoras while we waited. They were the crispy kind: my favorite.
The door was ajar. I considered the odds of a successful escape. Even if we got out of the handcuffs, we’d passed countless security checkpoints on the way down. Still, it seemed sloppy to leave that door open. A play to make us feel at ease?
“Sorry about that,” said Cooper when he returned. “Break room was out of plates. Had to run up a floor.”
He unlocked our handcuffs and stacked them, then leaned back and watched us tear into the food.
“Not polite to stare at somebody when they’re eating,” said Li with her mouth full. “Your mother never teach you manners?”
Cooper smiled. “She certainly tried.”
“Where’d you take Zip?” I asked, wiping my mouth.
“Hospital in San Diego,” said Cooper. “He should be alright.”
The food was delicious. I had to force myself to slow down. Gorging yourself after an expedition was a great way to land a crippling stomachache.
“I’m sure you have more questions than that,” said Cooper.
Li wiped her fingers one at a time.
“I’ll try to fill in some blanks,” said Cooper. “First: those body cameras don’t just record.”
“Yeah, no, that’s pretty obvious, now,” said Li.
“Signal can only reach us when you’re fifty miles from shore, but that still gives us plenty of time to screen the footage before you arrive.”
“You knew about the monolith,” I said. “You knew about the tablet, about what LaMonte saw, everything.”
Cooper nodded. “Yuuup.”
“Why cover it up?”
He leaned across the table. “Time for some game theory.”
“Let’s say we knew there was something in there,” said Cooper. “Something big and scary. An entity we didn’t fully understand. What would we do?”
“Warn everyone,” said Li. “And then kill it.”
“Come on. Would we want to advertise its presence to the world? Would we want to get everybody riled up before we fully understood what it was, and what it wanted, and what it was capable of?”
He seemed to be waiting for a response, and I enjoyed refusing to give him one.
“No, we would not,” said Cooper. “We would not want that. It would cause panic. More importantly, from a strategic perspective, it would tell the thing in the forest—the entity, the civilization, whatever it was—it would tell it that we knew it was there.”
“People have a right to know,” said Li.
Cooper laughed uproariously.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” he said, wiping the corner of his eye. “That’s one of my favorites.”
“So the whole ranger program is fake?” I asked.
Cooper slowly regained his composure. “Well, rangers would probably have developed anyway. But yes, we use it as a sort of camouflage. You’re not just filming television. You’re also gathering intelligence.”
“So what’s in there?” asked Li. “What are we dealing with?”
“When you’re finished eating,” said Cooper, “I’ll take you to someone who can tell you everything we know.”
We followed Cooper into an elevator and he hit the lowest button. The elevator hummed as it plummeted. Cooper’s suit was immaculate, well-pressed, pin-striped, and perfectly tailored to his slight frame. Beside him, Li was coated in grime, mud caked on her boots up to the ankles. Her face was dark with dirt. Both of us left clods of dried mud and brown smears everywhere we went.
“No guards this time?” asked Li. “Guess you figured out they wouldn’t be much help.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” said Cooper, straightening his tie.
“You don’t give rangers enough credit,” I said. “Just because those guys are bigger doesn’t mean they’re more dangerous.”
Cooper examined me, eyes half-lidded.
“You’re more cocky than I remembered,” he said. “I thought Rivers was supposed to beat that out of you.”
“Just honest,” I said.
“The big gentleman beside you in the van? He was a POW for a week or two in Afghanistan,” said Cooper. “When they tried to interrogate him, he snapped the restraints.”
“Strong dude,” I said. “I get it.”
“They shot him four times, point blank. Two in the shoulder, two in the gut. He killed eight of them with his bare hands.”
Li shifted her weight to the other foot.
“After that he had a weapon. Escape from the camp was easy. But he had to cross the desert, walk a hundred miles, with no food and only the water he could carry.”
The elevator jolted to a stop. With an airy ding, the doors parted.
“I’m not saying you don’t have a hard job,” said Cooper. “Just that you’re not the only ones.”
He took us through a maze of corridors, finally stopping before a pair of double doors.
“Try to behave,” he said, and pushed them open.
On the other side was an enormous pit of a room with descending tiers connected by waffled steel steps. Complex machinery chimed and blinked. In the center, at a table with a hologram projected above it, stood a woman in a white lab coat with hair past her shoulders.
“Hey, Coop,” she said. “Who are they?”
She spoke quietly, but somehow her voice still reached us. Cooper trotted down the steps.
“Rangers,” he said.
“I can see that,” said the woman. “They’re going to get dirt everywhere.”
She wasn’t wrong. You could trace our progress by the debris we left behind.
“Sorry about that, ma’am,” I said.
“This is Doctor Alvarez,” said Cooper. “She’s the best we’ve got.”
“Try not to touch anything,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Li walked around the table, examining the hologram, which depicted a slowly-twirling molecule. Dr. Alvarez wore a thin glove with blue spots on the fingers. When she motioned with the gloved hand, the hologram shrank and vanished.
“You’re too young to be a doctor,” said Li.
“Apparently not. What are you here for?”
“The forest,” said Cooper. “Tell them everything.”
Cooper spread his arms and beamed. “Everything.”
Dr. Alvarez tapped a few keystrokes and a green globe materialized overhead.
“The Earth,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Familiar enough. Continents. The World Forest. Past certain latitudes, the polar wastes.”
As she spoke, she twisted the gloved hand, and the globe rotated accordingly.
“Can either of you tell me how life on Earth originated?”
I looked at Li. Science hadn’t been my best subject. To be fair, I hadn’t really paid attention in any of my subjects.
“Single-celled organisms in lakes,” said Li.
“Close, but wrong,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Li furrowed her brow. “Wait a minute.”
“That’s what they teach you in school,” said Dr. Alvarez, “but I assure you: it’s wrong.”
A few more keystrokes and the Earth was replaced by a blue globe with a single gigantic continent in the middle.
“This is the Earth,” said Dr. Alvarez, “one billion years ago.”
I watched the globe as it spun. “What’s all the blue?”
“Water,” said Dr. Alvarez.
My head thumped. The blue orb slowly turned.
“Where’s the forest?”
“Exactly,” said Dr. Alvarez.
Li tugged her earlobe. “You’re telling me the whole planet used to be one huge lake?”
“They’re called oceans,” said Dr. Alvarez, “from the Greek ‘okeanos,’ meaning ‘great river.’ It’s there, in the oceans, that life on Earth began.”
I was suddenly very tired. I looked for a place to sit down, but everything was covered in blinking buttons and dials.
“How do you know?” asked Li.
“Geological records,” said Dr. Alvarez. “Until about sixty-five million years ago, seventy percent of the Earth’s surface was covered by water. After that? No more oceans. Instead, forest.”
She tapped a few more keystrokes. “The World Forest is not natural. It’s not supposed to be there.”
The globe morphed once again. Now I recognized the outlines of the modern continents, but instead of the forest and white-brown polar wastes, these continents were surrounded by dazzling blue.
“That’s what the world is supposed to look like,” said Dr. Alvarez, with just the slightest hint of sadness.
I couldn’t comprehend that much water. Couldn’t even picture it. Whole continents of water. You could swim for years and never make it across.
“Something, or someone, put the forest there,” said Dr. Alvarez. “And it’s our job to figure out why.”